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Europe Launches $12M Genome-based Drought Tolerance Project

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The European Commission has provided €9 million ($11.9 million) to fund a multinational project that will use DNA sequencing to identify traits in certain plants that enable them to better withstand drought.

The EC said today that the University of Southampton in the UK will lead the project, which will look at the genomes of three crops that people do not use for food, including poplar, miscanthus, and giant reed.

The 22 partners in the project, called WATBIO, want to aid development of new germplasm with enhanced drought tolerance for use in bioenergy and bioproducts.

The concern driving the effort is the long-term availability of water for irrigation, which is a central concern with climate change, particularly in Europe, where a drought in 2003 caused crop productivity to fall by 30 percent.

In addition to the University of Southampton, the WATBIO partners include 14 academic centers and 7 small or medium-sized enterprises, which will conduct a range of efforts that could help spur innovations in drought tolerance.

"Our primary aim is to characterize the vast amount of DNA variation in these under-utilized crops and harness this to produce better crops," Professor Gail Taylor, director of research for biological sciences at Southampton, said in a statement.

"Even five years ago this project wouldn't have been possible as DNA sequencing was relatively expensive. Now we are sequencing the genome of more than 50 poplar trees, sampled from across contrasting sites in Europe, including droughted southern sites," she added.

"From this we can identify small changes that might give us a clue to survival in stressful environments. These DNA variants can then be used in breeding programs, enabling us to harness the power of molecular biology without the necessity of [genetically modified] crops," said Taylor.

The partners plan to identify important molecular, cellular, and physiological traits in the plants that are involved in their biomass productivity, lignocellulosic quality, and water use efficiency in water-scarce environments. They then will link these traits to underlying genes, proteins, and metabolite networks.

The partners also will use a range of germplasm for screening in phenotyping platforms and field measurements in multiple sites to test the importance of genotype-environment interactions in determining traits.

They also plan to use sequence-based expression data to identify 40 genes related to drought tolerance and for genome-wide association studies to link traits and physiology to certain genes.

The WATBIO group plans to transfer commercially significant knowledge they generate through their industrial partners and stakeholders, and they plan to conduct seminars and programs to train the next generation of multidisciplinary professionals in biomass crop production on marginal lands.

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